West of the Tracks details the slow decline of Shenyang’s industrial Tiexi district, an area that was once a vibrant example of China’s socialist economy. Part I: Rust focuses on the daily lives and work routines of Chinese workers in three different financially troubled state-owned factories within the district. As the factories slide closer and closer to bankruptcy, massive layoffs force workers out of their predictable, familiar factory environments and into an uncertain and frightening future. Part II: Remnants shifts the focus to the lives of a group of teens living with their parents in factory-provided housing in a blue collar neighborhood in the Tiexi district – an area known as ‘Rainbow Row’, which has been slated for destruction by local authorities. Finally, Part III: Rails tells the story of the old freight railway that links the factories of the Tiexi district together, and of two men: Du Xiyun and his son, unemployed scavengers living at the fringes of society, who depend upon the railway for their livelihood. As Du Xiyun and his son struggle to cope with changes in the world around them and to maintain some control over their own destinies, their friends working for the state-owned railways continue going through the empty motions of their jobs, absurdly, as if frozen in an era long since past.
“Without question the greatest work to have come out of the Chinese documentary movement, and must be ranked among the most extraordinary achievements of world cinema in the new century.”
New Left Review: But didn’t you anticipate resistance from your audience? And what were the main problems in making the film?
Wang Bing: Resistance? I never thought about such things. If you want to make a film, you have to work on it, to realize your plan from start to finish. For me, my job is to get things done. It didn’t involve much exploration of the language of presentation and representation. It was mainly the actual work, practical matters on a daily basis. I didn’t have much difficulty getting into the factories, making friends with workers, and so on. That was all quite simple. The most difficult part of filmmaking is money. You need to shoot every day, to manage a mass of details every day. The work required a continuous input of material resources. Basically my friends and my family supported me.
New Left Review in conversation with Wang Bing2
“West of the Tracks presents us with the panoramic spectacle of progress collapsing. Industry folds and empties its plants; workers lose their jobs and their benefits; people are idle and demoralized, and then they are unhoused, and they demolish their own former dwellings to cash in on their value as scrap; people scavenge among gargantuan ruins that loom like the remnants of a forgotten civilization of giants. It is every twentieth-century mural depiction of the struggle for the good life – socialist or capitalist – viewed in reverse. It is as if the film were being run backwards, or like the last lines of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “And we, who think of happiness / as rising, would feel the emotion / that nearly overwhelms us / when a happy thing falls.”
« Les tours et détours du film de Wang Bing, ses fascinants travellings avant où la lentille de la caméra se confond avec la vitre de la locomotive, ses allées et venues dans les ruelles de la vieille ville destinées à la disparition, tout cela ne peut pas ne pas évoquer la matérialité même de l’aventure du ruban d’images quand il est projeté. Tout, au cinéma, il est facile de le concevoir, est affaire d’apparitions et de disparitions. Entrées et sorties de champs, passages dans le cadre, variations d’éclairage, tout ce qui est filmé, corps, matières, objets, tombe sous le coup d’une promesse – ou d’une menace – de disparition ou d’apparition. Le cinéma est bien l’art de l’apparition dans la mesure où il n’y a pas d’apparition sans disparition. Par parenthèse, ce thème ancien et puissant, qui est celui du remplacement du Vieux par le Neuf, du refoulement ou de la destruction du monde ancien sous les attaques de la modernité, ce thème « éternel » est précisément ce qui travaille A l’ouest des rails, film hanté par la disparition du Vieux monde, les traces qui en restent, l’horreur de la relève qui s’annonce. Indestructible scénario que celui de la destruction du monde ancien par le nouveau. Le récit cinématographique ne fait ici que reprendre et retisser, increvable Pénélope, les fils de l’histoire universelle, de la seule histoire que les humains aient colportée d’année en année et de port en port depuis les siècles des siècles. »
“Wang Bing’s tripartite nine-hour documentary portrait of Tie Xi, the industrial district in northeastern China. Once the heart of state-run heavy industry, Tie Xi is now a scene of decay, as economic reforms, bankruptcies, relocation, and demolition have left many factories empty and entire communities jobless.
Wang follows the old railway line that bisects the industrial area to interview locals about their precarious situation. In Rust, he spends an entire year with one community as it copes with the disintegration of its village. In Remnants, he portrays children who, with no prospects for the future, still manage to find small pleasures in everyday life. And in Rails, he follows the old railway track past dying factories, visiting the people who have stayed behind.”
“In West of the Tracks, filmmaker Wang Bing documents the slow, inevitable death of an obsolete manufacturing system. Between 1999 and 2001 he meticulously filmed the lives of the last factory workers, a class of people once promised glory during the Chinese revolution. Now trapped by economic change, the workers become deeply moving film heroes in this modern epic. The film is an engrossing portrait of Chinese society in transition. Cahiers du Cinema compares Wang Bing to the great Russian writers and calls his film ‘a masterful production, an open file on realism.’ West of the Tracks ‘opens up a new and radical era in cinematography.’”
- 1Lu Xinyu, “Ruins of the Future,” New Left Review, 31 (2005).
- 2Wang Bing, “Filming a Land in Flux. Interview with Wang Bing,” New Left Review 82, 2013. [Article is republished on Sabzian, available here.
- 3Luc Sante, “The Great Leap Backwards,” in Leaving the factory: Wang Bing's Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (New York: Texte und Töne, 2009).
- 4Jean-Louis Comolli, “A l’ouest des rails : suite du voyage,” Images Documentaires 77, juillet 2013.
- 5“Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks”.
- 6“DER Documentary: West of the Tracks”.